Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Terry Pratchett - Going Postal

“Delivering the mail is the only thing….History is not to be denied…I intend to deliver all the mail. If people have moved, we will try to find them. If they have died, we will deliver to their descendants. The post will be delivered. We are tasked to deliver it, and deliver it we will. What else should we do with it? Burn it? Throw it in the river? Open it to decide if it’s important? No, the letters were entrusted to our care. Delivery is the only way.” (p. 170)

Going Postal opens with the condemned man, Moist Von Lipwig, tunneling for freedom with a spoon on the day of his execution. As he works, the prison guards come in and congratulate him on his attempt. They, it seems, always give the prisoner a tool for hope, for the prospect of freedom (p. 6). The prospect of freedom, however, doesn’t mean that they provide said freedom, so Moist is taken from his cell and executed…

…or so it appears. In reality, his most recent alias having fallen victim to the hangman’s noose, Moist is placed in charge of the city’s Post Office by Ankh-Morpork’s tyrannical dictator, Vetinari. Prevented from escaping by an indefatigable golem who forgoes sleep entirely, Moist is left with only one way out, doing his job and doing it well.

Moist is plagued by more than just the pathetic state of the Post Office and the reality-distorting effect of so many letters in one place. In direct competition with those archaic deliverers of letters are the Clacks, a system that, to the modern reader, is impossible to not think of as email, though the actual process is a bit closer to the telegraph. The book’s main conflict is between the efficient and the personal:

I daresay the Clack is wonderful if you want to know the prawn market figures in Genua. But can you write S.W.A.L.K. on a clacks? Can you seal it with a loving kiss? Can you cry your tears onto a clacks, can you smell it, can you enclose a pressed flower? A letter is more than just a message. And a clacks is so expensive in any case that the average man in the street can just about afford in time of crisis: GRANDADS DEAD FUNERAL TUES. A day’s wages to send a message as warm and as human as a throwing knife? But a letter is real. (p. 171)

The Clacks were once a labor of love, but now they are run by greedy businessmen who cut corners and endanger their workers’ lives. The Post Office, by comparison, is a place of traditions, and grand schemes, and charm. And yet, how can mail delivered by a horse possibly hope to compete with the fast-as-the-signal speed of the Clacks? It’s a variant of the question that I don’t doubt we’ve all tried to grapple with at one point or the other, whether we were arguing against e-books or for vinyl (or whatever your own personally preferred throwback is), and Pratchett does not give us an easy answer. While it may feel right at the time, and may even have short term benefits, Moist soon realizes that he cannot in good conscience stay in the direct path of progress:

But Moist kept thinking of all the bad things that could happen without the semaphore. Oh, they used to happen before the semaphore, of course, but that wasn’t the same thing at all. (p. 324)

Of course, no matter his eventual plans for the technology, Moist needs a way to compete, and he needs it fast. The answer lies, unsurprisingly, in his shady past. Having spent years as a conman, Moist is an expert at manipulation, and he sets out to do what he must for the Post Office – put on a good show: Run before you walk! Fly before you crawl! Keep moving forward! (p. 158) He always raises the bar higher, promising more and more and somehow finding ways to deliver.

Therein lies my problem with Going Postal. See, Moist makes people believe in his own bullshit. After completing one stunt after another, he always promises bigger, and people are soon convinced that he can do anything. And, after the first few stunning successes, the reader, too, knows that he can do anything, and, at that point, all tension flies out of the ride. Moist Von Lipwig cannot afford to fail; Moist says that he will succeed; Terry Pratchett needs Moist to succeed; hence, Moist succeeds. Always. One this realization is reached, that any plan, no matter how impossible, will be brought about, even if it’s by mere chance or happenstance, any setback goes from threatening to time wasting. When, at the end of the book, Moist complains that he doesn’t have a plan, it’s hard to think anything but: that’s nice; now, get on with it, will you? The novel changes from a story to a collection of set pieces, each amusing in their own right, but with little to make the reader fear for the characters and little that dissuades the reader, end of the current escapade reached, from taking a lengthy hiatus from the text.

[This paragraph has SPOILERS, skip it if you haven’t read the text yet] There are other instances in the novel where going after the knockout blow deprives the book of some of its best bits. The Post Office is filled with undelivered mail at the start of the novel, and the sheer weight of the written word within the building has began to twist the world around it. The idea that people’s thoughts and feelings – souls, even? – written out, can so affect their surroundings is awesome and antithetical to the clipped, pay-by-the-word style of the Clacks. So, the Clacks lash out, and, in their determination for profit at all costs, destroy the letters. Okay, I understand what Pratchett is saying here – it would be hard for the potentially soul-destroying nature of the Clacks to be spilled out any clearer than that – but, at the same time, he takes one of the most interesting storylines from the book at the halfway point, and there’s nothing nearly as quirky and interesting as it was to take its place.

Complain as I might about its dominance, but the humor in Going Postal is absolutely excellent. It comes through in the way that Pratchett constructs his scenes and from his storylines, and, most of all, it comes through his hilarious prose:

It is wrong to judge by appearances. Despite his expression, which was of a piglet having a bright idea, and his mode of speech, which might put you in mind of a small, breathless, neurotic, but ridiculously expensive dog, Mr. Horsefry might well have been a kind, generous, and pious man. In the same way, the man climbing out of your window in a stripy jumper, a mask, and a great hurry might merely be lsot on his way to a fancy-dress party and the man in the wig and robes at the focus of the courtroom might only a transvestite who wandered in out of the rain. Snap judgments can be so unfair. (p. 70)

My bitching and moaning aside, Going Postal is an enjoyable novel, even though it didn’t wow me like I’d been hoping. I’m still waiting for the Pratchett book that really sells me on the man, but, as I continue searching, I’ll recommend Going Postal while I go by, if you’re in the mood for some well written and socially conscious satire.

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